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Saturday, May 11, 2024

Timberwolves Can Put Away The Brooms and Roll Up Their Sleeves After Being Dominated by Nuggets

Minnesota fans can put away their brooms, and they can hold off on making championship parade plans just yet. There is no doubt that the Timberwolves dominated the defending champion Denver Nuggets in the first two games of their playoff series, but a playoff series is a race to four wins, not two--and in game three the Nuggets made the Timberwolves look like a bunch of little puppies with a 117-90 rout that demonstrated that the Nuggets have no intention of meekly giving up their crowns.  

Nikola Jokic recently became just the 10th member of pro basketball's Three MVP Club, and in game three he had an MVP-level performance: a game-high 24 points on 10-18 field goal shooting, a game-high 14 rebounds, a game-high nine rebounds, a game-high three blocked shots, and a game-high three steals. Other than hitting two game-winning shots, Jamal Murray has struggled for most of the 2024 playoffs, but in this game he tied Jokic for game-high honors with 24 points while also dishing for five assists and tying Jokic with a game-high three steals. All five Denver starters scored in double figures, with Michael Porter Jr. (21 points), Aaron Gordon (13 points), and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (12 points) each making major contributions to support Jokic and Murray.

Anthony Edwards led Minnesota with 19 points, but to his credit he took the blame for the loss and vowed to be better in game four on Sunday. What a novel concept--a team's best player taking responsibility and not firing passive-aggressive shots toward his coach, his teammates, the referees, and anyone other than himself! I very much like Edwards' game and his demeanor, but I wish that media members would stop making premature Michael Jordan comparisons and just let Edwards write his own story chapter by chapter. Michael Jordan became MICHAEL JORDAN not because of hype but because of sustained individual excellence capped off by a pair of championship threepeats.

The Nuggets jumped on the Timberwolves early, led 56-41 at halftime, and were never threatened in the second half. Perhaps what we are witnessing is the difference between playing against the L.A. Lakers--an overhyped team--and a legit playoff team like the Timberwolves. The Nuggets started slowly in every game versus the Lakers and it did not matter, because when the chips were down Jokic and company consistently outdueled LeBron James and Anthony Davis. That casual approach did not cut it in games one and two versus the Timberwolves, so in game three the Nuggets led at the end of the first quarter for just the second time in eight games in the 2024 playoffs.

I saw and heard a lot of nonsense about how being swept by the Minnesota Timberwolves would affect Nikola Jokic's legacy, but there are two reasons that I did not waste a minute thinking about--let alone writing an article about--that topic: Jokic had not yet been swept by the Timberwolves, and the result of any one four game stretch does not define a player's legacy. By the way, here are Jokic's allegedly awful statistics from the first two games of this series: 24.0 ppg, 12.0 rpg, 8.5 apg, .421 FG%, 1.000 FT%. Before considering anything else, the fact that those numbers are considered to be subpar for Jokic says a lot about how great he is. Even that field goal percentage--which is very low by Jokic's standards--is better than James Harden's field goal percentage in 18 of his 30 career playoff series, and Jokic's scoring/rebounding/assist splits exceed Harden's playoff career averages in each category. So, Jokic's critics are admitting that "bad" Jokic is equivalent to better than average Harden.

To put all of this nonsensical legacy talk in perspective, Jokic has won as many playoff games in the past 24 hours as LeBron James and Kevin Durant have won in their last 15 playoff games combined (1-8 for James, 0-6 for Durant). James is playing alongside a member of the NBA's 75th Anniversary Team who is in his prime, and Durant is playing alongside two players who have earned multiple All-Star selections, while Jokic has never played with an All-Star (unless you count the ghost of Deandre Jordan, who is planted on Denver's bench this season). Read that sentence again, and then remember that James and Durant won their championships by team-hopping to play with multiple All-Stars. In nine seasons, Jokic has never played with an All-Star, but he has earned three regular season MVPs and posted a 9-4 career playoff series record. For most of his career, the on/off splits demonstrate that Denver is an elite team with Jokic on the court and a poor team with him off of the court. 

So, let's stop with the fairy tales about legacy, because if people keep telling lies about Jokic then someone will have to start telling the truth about James and Durant (not to mention MVP award winners like Joel Embiid and James Harden who have not only never led a team to the NBA Finals but also regularly flame out during the playoffs).

This series is still a race to four wins. All we know for sure now is that it will not end in a sweep. The Timberwolves still own homecourt advantage, but that could change on Sunday with a Nuggets win. History suggests that if the Nuggets regain homecourt advantage then they will have an excellent opportunity to advance because game five will be played in Denver, and the winner of game five in a tied series wins the series the vast majority of the time. 

In short, this game was never about making or breaking Jokic's legacy, and the next game will not be about that, either. Jokic has already built a significant legacy, and what will matter in the end is the sum total of consistent individual production plus championships won and series won, not the small sample size theater from the outcome of one series.

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posted by David Friedman @ 1:22 AM



At Saturday, May 11, 2024 4:39:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Did I catch a reference there to a line by Kendrick Lamar on his diss track Euphoria? Lol.

Nice write up! What would be your dream match up for this year’s Finals?

At Saturday, May 11, 2024 5:48:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I saw what you did there with the Kendrick Lamar nod (telling lies... telling the truth...) and love it! But what really impresses me about Jokic and, since you mentioned him, Jordan, is that they are and were managerial insofar as they spent the better part of their careers developing their teammates. Ignoring Jordan's Wizards stint for the moment, they made the most out of the available talent on the Bulls and Nuggets. In other words, they played the cards they were dealt as best they could. They thus maximized the potential of their teams. I see Jordan and Jokic as multipliers of their teammates in terms of talent.

For example, Jordan's maniacal practice habits put pressure on his teammates to shape up to his level of excellence, or ship out. Jordan thus developed Pippen et al. He put a multiplier effect on their talents.

I don't know as much about Jokic's practice habits, but I see the Nuggets championship last year as a culmination of the nine years he's spent in Denver developing his orchestration skill as Point Center. Pippen and Grant Hill were Point Forwards. Is Jokic the league's best ever Point Center?

But instead of developing surrounding talent, Lebron James "took his talents" to the green pastures of Miami.

Instead of taking on the challenge of the Warriors after being up 3-1, Durant turned coat.

No one can take away James's two rings with the Heat, nor Durant's two rings with the Warriors, especially since they were Finals MVPs in all four cases.

But there's something more meaningful about Jordan's six Finals MVPs and Jokic's one.

Jordan had spent seven years almost singlehandedly developing a winning culture in Chicago, and so those two threepeats were a culmination of the culture of basketball excellence he developed.

The same seems true of Jokic.

I think that the old hat about "making teammates better" applies to Jordan and Jokic. But James and Durant, alltime greats that they are, lack the first-rate leadership of Jordan and Jokic because they're more about hopping skipping and jumping to find readymade the best teammates possible.

I'd put Bryant in the same category as Jordan and Jokic. He, too, spent his entire career with the same team. He was arguably the second best player in the league, definitely top five, during that Lakers threepeat. But look what he did after Shaq left, winning a couple more chips with relatively lackluster teammates. Kobe, too, was a developer.

But James and Durant seem too entitled to be leaders of men which is to say developers of men.

At Saturday, May 11, 2024 7:13:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


The "lies/truth" line predates Kendrick Lamar. I know that there was a song from three or so years ago that included it, but I don't think that the line originated in that song either. So, I can honestly say that I neither thought up that line nor was I giving a direct nod to Kendrick Lamar, either.

I agree that Jordan, Bryant, and Jokic built up teams, while LeBron and Durant fled to pre-built teams, and I also agree with not ranking LeBron and Durant ahead of "builders" who won the same amount or more titles.

I would add that I am not quite sure where to rank Jokic just yet because his career is still in progress. Right now he has one title as a "builder" plus a very strong multi-year run as an MVP-level player. Jokic's peak value is high, but most of the Pantheon members played at or near MVP-level for a decade or more, and Jokic has not done that yet.

At Saturday, May 11, 2024 7:15:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Boston-Denver would be the most intriguing matchup to me, because that would pit a perennial contender who has yet to win versus the defending champion. As someone who has a lot of personal ties to Cleveland, it would be great to see the Cavs win it all, but I don't expect that to happen even though the Cavs--for the moment--enjoy homecourt advantage over Boston.


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